With every penny having to do the work of a dollar these days, college students and their parents or supporters face the challenge of coping with the high costs of textbooks, not to mention the luggability of heavy tomes. While renting textbooks doesn't offer the muscular relief of etextbooks-another solution under consideration these days-it can ease the pressure on shrinking student budgets. Net newbies such as BookRenter.com and Chegg offer used textbooks for rental over their websites. Firms running campus bookstores, such as Barnes & Noble and Follett Higher Education Group (www.efollett.com), have plans underway to introduce renting options. But now, Cengage Learning (www.cengage.com), a textbook publisher, has announced that it will introduce rental for a limited number of print textbooks in December when the company relaunches its existing iChapters.com service as CengageBrain.com (http://cengage.com/cengagebrain). While limited to delivering only its own textbooks, Cengage feels that its relatively complete control of that content will help the company provide better and more reliable service.
Launched in 2007, the iChapters.com service provides a range of purchase options to students and educators for more than 15,000 heavily discounted print textbooks, individual "e-chapters," and etextbooks, as well as more than 10,000 print, audio, and digital study tools and online homework solutions. Discounts for print textbooks extend up to 15% off the list price with etextbooks at 50% below the list price; first e-chapters are always free. The new rental option available directly to students will reduce costs from 40% to 70% below the retail price. All the existing products and services now offered by iChapters.com will continue to remain available in CengageBrain.
Initially, CengageBrain will offer several hundred titles and then expand that number significantly in July 2010. According to Ronald Dunn, president and CEO of Cengage Learning, approximately 1,000 works in Cengage's textbook collection are "really active at any moment. Somewhere between 85%-90% of all the active textbooks are also available as etexts." Dunn says titles chosen for the initial launch will "be representative across our product line. We're picking mainly enough to have a core interesting to a broad range of students." As to why the wait until next July for a larger launch, Dunn indicated Cengage wanted a little time to sort out the logistics and make sure the service worked really well.
Not all of Cengage's active textbooks are available as etextbooks; Dunn listed two reasons for this: Either image-heavy textbooks do not translate adequately to digital presentation or the copyright holder has not agreed to convert to the digital format. Speaking of copyright holders and authors, Cengage Learning will pay authors royalties from the rentals. Dunn stated, "We have always paid royalty. It's completely appropriate that authors should benefit. Our contracts provide for such payments, in contrast with used book sales"-and, clearly, in contrast with bookstore or used book rental site competitors, as far as faculty authors would be concerned.
If students choose the rental option for a textbook, they will receive a digital e-chapter copy of the textbook's first chapter immediately. The file will come in PDF but with an installed block against multiple copying from a digital rights management control that requires the user to download an "unsealer" software. Renters can designate different shipping options and print out a return label for shipping the book back. If they choose to purchase the title, the rental payments will be deducted from the purchase price, according to Dunn. However, there will be no renting of etextbooks, which already work somewhat like a rental in that they time out at the end of one semester, usually-some titles scheduled for multiple-semester courses may have a longer content access period.
Although other rental services could offer textbooks from a wide range of publishers, not just one, Dunn thought a publisher rental service would have some competitive advantages. Clearly making the first chapter available immediately as a free e-chapter would be something only a copyright holder could do. Dunn also pointed out that "we will always have the book in stock, because it's our book. Others will have to find the book and it won't always be the right book. One of the issues with used book services is that they sometimes send the wrong version or the wrong digital tools with it. We will always have the right book and immediately."
As a publisher, Cengage will also continue to supply campus bookstores and their services running them with textbooks. The iChapters service already offers an affiliate program, including special discounts for college bookstores linking to its site. Dunn says that the new CengageBrain service aims to establish a "closer relationship with the ultimate consumers, the students. Historically, we have dealt with them mainly through intermediaries. We need more interaction with the ultimate users to succeed. We are designing intelligent digital solutions and we need interaction up and down the line. And a second thing, when we sell a book our revenue stream stops as does the revenue stream for our authors. By participating in the rental arena, we get a second and third turn at making money." The rental program is only the first of new services to be offered in CengageBrain, according to Dunn.
The textbook rental programs being offered online may need a significant growth period. In reviewing the news section at BookRenter.com (www.bookrenter.com), I noticed that the list of press releases issued by the company was only a fraction of the size of the list of stories appearing in newspapers, trade magazines, etc., about it. Founded in 2006 and identifying itself as "the first online book rental service" (one assumes excluding library rental options, of course), in August 2008, the company issued an award with prizes to its 15,000th book renter.
Slow and steady wins the race?